Posted inCultures

Jordan Peterson at the Oxford Union

Illustration by Ipsita Sarkar

At 05:07 PM, amidst standing applause, Jordan Peterson walks into the chamber.

He begins by noting the “provocative title” of his talk: “Imitation of the Divine Ideal”.

While avoiding to define them for the time being, Peterson says he came about these ideas by a variety of routes, including literature, which, he adds, has its reality, and not only its existence as literature. From the beginning, his speech meanders as he talks in long sentences and quickly pivots from one topic to another, sometimes spending considerable time on seemingly tangential points only to return to what he was just saying.

He talks of a problem: the problem of perception. The problem that we confuse the world we perceive with the actual world.

To solve this problem, he’s studied cybernetics, neuropsychology, literary theory, existential philosophy – “diverse domains of inquiry”. Both cybernetics and neuropsychology provide the same solution to the problem of perception. Understanding something, Peterson claims, means we can use it to structure our perceptions and govern our actions.

He now talks about stories, the type of simple stories a little boy would tell you. His mother took him to kindergarten for the first time, and he was a little scared, but it was alright in the end. You’d smile and give the boy a pat on the head.

Even when the journey is a simple one, “you want people to tell you how they went from point A to point B”. We want to be told stories, he says – and Peterson obliges, of course, because stories keep an audience entertained. He tells us his tricks, but we hardly notice.

A common conclusion of cybernetics and neuropsychology, Peterson says, is that our emotions operate within this perception framework, which is itself a narrative one. There’s no perception without caption, and so there’s no way to distinguish motor action from perception. If we’re moving towards a goal and see an obstacle standing in our way, we feel negative emotion. But if we see a clear path, or a facilitator, we feel positive emotion instead.

His “fundamental claim” is that the framework of perception must be interpreted as a narrative framework, as the description of A, B, and how we get from one to the other.

There are also meta-narratives, how we go from one narrative to another and back – from Paradise, to the Fall, and to Paradise. Here, there, and back again. A meta-narrative is the process by which narratives are damaged and repaired.

You’re typing, say. You’re thinking when you’re typing, as you move your fingers. But you’ve built little automated machines that mean things run deterministically. At the micro level, you’re not really thinking when you type a letter. But, of course, you type the letter in relationship to the word, and the word in relationship to the sentence, and so on to the paragraph, and the text, and whatever you’re writing. They’re a series of nested narratives, Peterson argues. And why do we do it all? Somewhere, at the end of that series of meta- and meta-meta-narratives, we reach something deep, profound, divine. A scientist types a letter to write a word to form a sentence to ultimately arrive at an article or book – but the point of the book is to share the research, to contribute in some way to something larger, greater, deeper. To the divine. The supraordinate narrative is chiefly religious imagination.

Peterson evokes Byzantine cathedrals; these have a Greek cross plan, with four arms of equal lengths. At the centre, at the point of maximal suffering, we look up to find a beautiful dome.

He suddenly changes the subject to his own study into the action of the guards at Auschwitz. Yes, there was Schindler; but the rest, most of them, were “wilfully blind”, or worse.

Peterson now jumps back and talks about his cottage in Northern Ontario. It’s darker out there, and every evening he can see the full spectacle of the sunset or of the starry skies.

Awe, he says, is a deep biological reaction, not unlike that of animals when threatened. Just like fear, awe “calls something out of you”; it impels you to respond to the challenge of the infinite. Once you hear that calling, you either imitate it or you go the other way. You either imitate the divine ideal, or you go down the path that leads to the capacity for widespread atrocity.

Because his rhythm is quite irregular, it takes us a little while to realise Peterson has finished his speech.

It’s Q&A time.

Has Peterson’s work been obscured by his controversies?

Peterson briefly gathers his thoughts before an emphatic “No!”. “I certainly don’t want to be controversial”. To give an example, Peterson discusses how “men and women are not exactly the same” – women, for example, are slightly shorter than men, on average. More egalitarian states end up emphasizing the differences between men and women. Peterson says this twice, never explaining what he means by these «differences». He does say “the larger of the two sexes is more aggressive”. Whether you like it or not, “it’s still the case”, and science says so. What if that’s bad science?, he asks himself. It’s still better than the alternative account provided by “utopian” humanities. But “Go ahead man, publish your papers!”

To answer the question, he argues people fail to read his work but still criticise it and even parody it. A Marvel comic writer parodied him by portraying Red Skull as a proponent of Peterson’s philosophy. Peterson describes Red Skull and his place in the Marvel cosmos, finishing with a mix of exasperation and bonhomie: “I don’t know who I am but I’ll tell you, I’m not Red Skull, the magical super-nazi!”

A new question: given the popularity of his Biblical series, does he believe we’ll see an increase in religiosity in the near future? Peterson skilfully dodges the question by diverting attention with a bold (though not overly contentious) statement. In his view, all great scientists are thoroughly possessed by the spirit of truth.

When you first meet statistics, he says, you find a magical way to analyse data and extract the truth. But statistics really are more of a surgical tool, which can be wielded according to the intentions of the user. For researchers working for a long time on a project, not having their desired results can be a devastating blow. There are strong incentives to be “wilfully blind” and misuse statistics. In how to analyse data, a scientist is choosing between being truthful, benevolent, and ethical, or not; so those decisions, Peterson argues, are religious. In this sense, all scientists fully in search of truth – all great scientists – are religious.

Peterson’s definition of religion is not consensual. He tries to explain. People don’t like their beliefs threatened, especially their deep beliefs. Deep beliefs are those upon which other beliefs stand. Fidelity, for example, is a deeper belief to marriage. Religion for Peterson is about our very deepest beliefs. Their relationship to the question of whether God exists is a whole different question.

He asks, rhetorically, who doesn’t enjoy films. He asks for a show of hands: who hasn’t seen a film this week? To Peterson’s surprise, almost everyone raises an arm. There’s laughter as the audience realises Peterson expected Oxford students on their 7th week of term to regularly go to the movies. He moves on to his main point: if someone points out to you that ‘it’s all fiction’, you’ll shrug your shoulders and go ‘so what? Of course it’s fiction’. But, if it’s an enjoyable film, it won’t feel like fiction in the moment, you won’t focus on the fiction. We communicate with narratives, Peterson says, which is some evidence we think in narratives.

The future of religiosity (the original topic of the question) doesn’t seem to warrant a mention.

The President looks for someone to ask a final question. The member stands, thanks Peterson for his presence, and says that he gets the impression philosophy and morality are based on a desire to survive. Is Imitating the Divine Ideal anything more than the desire to survive, then? Peterson interrupts the rest of the question; he seems to like this one better.

He cites psychological studies that find that rats like playing, and that parts of their brain won’t mature if they’re deprived of play. Male rats, he claims, enjoy some “rough and tumble” – not unlike other young males, including boys. If they play in pairs, the larger rat pins down the smaller rat; it dominates it. Are the relationships between rats always based on dominance? Peterson points out rats, like boys, play repeatedly and not just once. The second time they meet, the smaller rat invites the larger rat to play. A part of friendship is being able to distinguish aggression from play. And if the larger rat doesn’t let the little one win at least 30 percent of the time, the little rat won’t invite him to play anymore.

Similarly, chimpanzee communities aren’t always ruled by a big-teethed tyrant. More often, others gang up on such a potential tyrant. Peterson goes to great lengths to explain this feature and tells us how others, though weaker individually, band together and rip the tyrant to pieces.

A point which Peterson referred to intermittently throughout his appeal to empirical evidence was that power isn’t the principle on which societies are erected and, in fact, the very idea is a corrosive concept. The almost friendly relationship between the big and the little rats is not built upon one’s dominance over the other, and the dominance of the larger chimpanzee is far from absolute. The will-to-power, Peterson argues, corrupts the structure we use to orient ourselves – ultimately, it is not a solution to the problem of perception.


Throughout his remarks, his speech almost rambles – or it seems to, when you’re hearing it. He often pauses mid-sentence, almost stammering, before embarking on a rapid-fire tirade. He sometimes pauses for longer as he gathers his thoughts, but he never seems at a loss for words. He doesn’t use many connectors: his conclusions follow from his premises almost surreptitiously. In retrospect (and in writing), you can see how his argument is weaved – you notice where he’s foreshadowing what he’ll cover later, or where he repeats, in other words and in another context, what he’s said before. He sketches his scenes, hurried watercolours of the mind, and moves on; but looking back you can see the threads that allow him to go from the golden domes of Byzantine cathedrals to Auschwitz’s guards, to the skies of Northern Ontario. It’s itself a narrative – good, evil, and good again. A to B to A. And then he ties it together.

The argument is muddled with tangents which make it hard to follow, and the relevance of many examples isn’t always clear. He glosses over points of contention and spends some time restating the obvious (or what is at any rate not particularly novel) in complex terms. In a word, he obfuscates. But the trick is that all that just makes him a more engrossing public speaker. The changes in rhythm catch your attention, and so do all the stories and examples. His empirical evidence is chiefly narrative: lab rats did this, or chimpanzees were found to do that. He doesn’t waste a lot of time on the key conceptual parts of his argument, like his definition of ‘divine’, which he associates with profundity in a way which is not entirely clear and obviously contestable. Perception as a narrative framework, his fundamental claim, is still unclear. He just moves on. This is not just a thinker avoiding the flaws in his argument (though it’s certainly that too); this is a speaker that knows definitional debates are uninteresting for most crowds, if they attract crowds at all – this is, in short, a showman.

Peterson leaves the chamber at 06:05 PM amidst a standing ovation.